One comic app has slowly been transforming the way Korean teens and millennials read comics for over the past decade, and it’s finally starting to roll out in the US and abroad.
LINE Webtoon allows readers to scroll vertically up and down through comics unlike traditional comics which read horizontally from panel to panel. There is no fancy cover art, no variant covers to collect, and no pages to flip.
There aren’t really pages at all.
And even better? Unlike mainstream comics, all of the content is free. Consumers aren’t paying anything to read the 500+ original titles currently available in Korea and the 50 available in the US.
This is how a “Star Wars” comic looks. It’s published twice a week and tells the story of the original trilogy from Luke Skywalker’s perspective.
With heavy imagery, and little dialogue, the comics are quick to get through. It’s easy to see why millions of people in Korea are reading the comics everyday.
Plus, the characters are pretty adorable. Just look at this Luke caricature.
In the past few months, several comics have started using FX Toons, an innovative effects tool, which brings the stories to life. Movement and sounds are triggered by the downward scroll motion of the comics. The result is a more immersive reading experience.
You can’t hear the sounds, but here’s a sample of what that looks like from horror comic “Chiller” as you scroll:
Where did LINE Webtoon begin?
Launched in 2005 by South Korean search portal Naver, LINE Webtoon (then just known as Webtoon) was a response to the state of the comics industry in the country. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, many comic publishers were shut down after an economic collapse in Korea. According to Korea Times, the Korean government also censored comics in the ’90s for being deemed “harmful influences.“
Founder JunKoo Kim — a self-proclaimed comics geek who grew up reading Japanese manga and Korean superhero comics — was looking for a way to both create new and original comics and get them into the hands of mainstream readers for free.
“There weren’t any series coming out,” Kim told Tech Insider. “There were no big hits and there weren’t any comics I could read.”
Kim wanted to initially reach teens by focusing on content he described as “casual, light, and cool.” He thought it wouldn’t make sense to just appeal to traditional comic fans who already had “a defined taste of what they like.” Kim came up with launching scroll comics online, an idea which came about because of an astute observation about human behaviour.
“It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to do the scroll, but people that create content and deliver content should always think in terms of how the creators or how users will consume the content,” said Kim. “During this time in the early 2000s, when most of content creators were still on PC, you would read and consume a lot of digital content by scrolling down on your mouse. To read news, you don’t flip a page, you often scroll through and read your news. Although comics are a mix of image and text, I think text is the one that drives the narrative so it just makes sense that you would read a comic in a scroll manner.”
Though it seemed intuitive, Kim said it made it difficult to find creators who could work on the platform in the early days of LINE Webtoon. “But because the industry was sort of a sinking ship during this time,” he explained, “creators were a bit more open and willing to do things differently.”
One of said creators was Kyusam Kim, who was studying to get a real estate agent licence when JunKoo offered him the opportunity to work with him on LINE Webtoon. Today, he’s one of the most popular Webtoon creators and runs a series called “Hive,” which follows a man in the middle of a bug-apocalypse.
Another way Kim attracted talent was by launching the “Challenge League,” an open-sourced platform which allows anyone who registers on the site or through the app to upload and share their own original comics. It’s a program that’s still used over a decade later to find new artists.
Head of Content for LINE Webtoon Tom Akel, tells Tech Insider that once a month, they go through the submitted comics and feature anywhere from one to four artists in the app. Those creators then become paid artists.
For Kim, the Challenge League has been a win-win to find new emerging talent and for aspiring creators. Akel also seeks out potential creators online and at conventions, asking creators one thing every time he meets with them: “What is the passion project you’ve been dying to do your entire life and have not been able to do?”
That’s the platform LINE Webtoon is trying to offer to creators.
Tons and tons of comics — all for free
When you go to its site, you can surf through 10 genres — from fantasy and thriller to heartwarming and romance.
Kim has been able to keep comics on the site free through a total of 16 different revenue models which include purchasing native advertisements from other app services, selling IPs and creator IPs to different markets, featuring comic characters in ads, and turning some of their characters into licensed products.
“Content is 100% creator owned,” says Akel, a format similar to Robert Kirkman’s (“The Walking Dead”) comic company, Image. “All of our creators are compensated, which is not evident when you look at the app. Everyone’s paid.”
While the company wouldn’t detail any specifics, the amount a given artist makes varies by the creator, their experience, number of pages they’re publishing, and the region in which they’re working. Tech Insider was told the page rate is “well above industry standard.”
According to the Australian Society of Authors, professional writers and artists should receive $100 per page for their work.
The simplistic format caught on fast in Korea. “The Sound of Your Heart” and “Jungle High School” both helped the app gain traction among readers, which hit 30 million monthly, up from 17 million readers in 2014. The readership is split 50/50 between males and females. That probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. As of February, comic site Graphic Policy reports women accounted for approximately 45% fans who “like” comics on Facebook.
But when the majority of US comic books from powerhouse companies DC and Marvel are still catering to men first, it tells you Webtoon is doing something right.
“We have the content so the audience comes,” Tom Akel says of both Webtoon’s high female readership and the overall appeal of the platform. “The second half of that, which I think is probably true, is the ease and accessibility of our content. It’s on your phone, it’s on your computer, there’s no barrier to entry. You just get it wherever you want.”
Eventually, the service became so big that Kim wanted to expand outside Korea. In 2014, Webtoon was launched overseas with the popular messaging tool LINE, a family company to Naver.
“Before we even tried to translate our content we realised that it was already being translated by fans,” said Kim. “We saw the demand. One of the experiences that we had, when we went to the Frankfurt book fair in Germany in 2013, there were so many fans of creators that we never released beyond Korea.”
A year later, LINE Webtoon adopted the use of HTML5 in several series to create sound effects and moving images as readers scroll to add an extra depth to the comics they release.
Today, Webtoon is massive. They have a few deals with IP holders like Lucasfilm, which releases a “Star Wars” comic, and BuzzFeed which puts out quick, daily comics. They have also gained the attention of Marvel’s Stan Lee. And now, LINE Webtoon is read globally in seven countries — China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and the United States, in addition to Korea.
The US version of the app mixes original content along with translations of some of Korea’s biggest hits like “Tower of God” and “Noblesse.”
“That stuff is kind of a no-brainer to translate and then there are other comics that we think will resonate here and work that we translate and see how they do. Constantly, there’s new stuff being brought over here,” says Akel.
If you’re a Webtoon noob, Akel recommends checking out horror anthology series Chiller, which uses the FX Toon technology, “Tower of God,” if you’re into manga, “Star Wars,” and “Heroine Chic,” which Akel describes as “Devil Wears Prada” meets a traditional superhero universe on the surface.
When asked what Webtoon has lined up for 2016, Kim jokes, “We plan to neurologically plant comics in your brain in the future.” (Hey, who knows? With virtual reality gear, we may not be so far off.)
In reality, Kim says LINE Webtoon also has a platform called Slidetoon which let’s users scroll from side to side or read through a comic by swiping panel to panel. This sounds like something you’ll see more of in a traditional US comic book based app like Comixology.
In the US, LINE Webtoon will also be launching more features on the Challenge League and they plan to head to more comic conventions this year to find and inspire creators. Akel says fans can also expect to see more female-driven content.
“We’re going to be developing even more content targeted towards our female audience because we know how large our readership is there and also there’s a wildly underserved audience in the United States. We’re going to be specifically developing a lot more content targeted toward female readers.”
Readers can also expect additional FX toons coming this year.
“There will be more of those, but those are, as an animator will tell you, incredibly work intensive. Those take much longer to prepare,” Akel explains. “The workload for creators is much heavier than it would be for producing a comic because everything has to be layered and animated.”
“It would be awesome to do that all the time on everything,” he added. “For some creators, it’s another thing for them to think about.”
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